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As the higher education community emerges from these pandemic-affected years and into a new normal, nobody can accurately predict what the future will look like. But we do know that both pre-pandemic and pandemic-related trends have created shifts which will have downstream effects on fundraising for the years to come.

For example, major gift donors are older than they used to be. They’re giving larger gifts, sometimes even mega-gifts, but they’re giving for a shorter length of time. On the other end of the spectrum, annual giving teams are struggling with engagement are finding the need to create new strategies to reach the next generation of donors. Even the largest institutions with the most staff and generous budgets struggle to do it all.

Successful advancement teams are prioritizing activities that have the biggest impact on fundraising results. Many are renewing their focus on establishing loyalty among new graduates, focusing portfolios on the highest potential prospects, and maximizing the lifetime value of constituents.

Alumni Giving Programs

Most donors begin their philanthropic relationship with annual giving. However, as higher education advancement teams develop new annual fundraising programs, many are finding success by starting with an understanding that major gift donors are not only giving larger gifts, but they’re also giving for a shorter length of time. With this in mind, gift officers are focusing on finding strong donors early on in their lives and moving donor relationships forward—no matter their gift band—to pave the way for a more sustainable future.  

Use the tips below to guide your strategy on increasing the lifetime value of your donors. 

  • Identify generational leaders. Generational leaders are alumni who are both around 10 years removed from graduation and in the top 10 percent of their peers for giving. Invest in the right constituents who will go on to become your evergreen or top 100 donors. If they’re properly cultivated over the course of their lives, these leaders will mature into your strongest supporters. Starting relationships with them when they’re in their late 20s and early 30s should be the first step in building a strong mid-level giving program that feeds your major gifts pipeline. 
  • Create a path for emerging prospects. Emerging prospects make up the majority of annual fund donors. They are not generational leaders and may not be high-value prospects. These donors may have been previously unknown opportunities who you don’t know much about. Whatever their reasons for beginning a philanthropic relationship now, they’re excellent candidates for stewardship and relationship-building strategies. 
  • Strengthen the handoff between annual giving and major giving. Many devoted annual fund donors could be developed into major gift donors over the course of their lives. When a donor “graduates” from annual giving monetary thresholds, a major gifts officer should be ready to pick up the relationship and continue cultivating it. The same is true for committed donors who don’t make it through the major gifts qualification process. A strong handoff mechanism prevents donors from being reintegrated into annual giving programs. 

For more information on this topic, please visit: Major Giving


Engaging Alumni

Alumni giving is the primary fundraising source for most higher education institutions, yet many advancement officers are don’t engage alumni in development early enough. They are forced into re-engagement efforts once their alumni are far removed from the school experience. And re-engaging alumni as they mature is more expensive and time-consuming than it is to engage students and alumni early and continue their engagement after graduation. Here are some tips for engaging students and alumni: 

  1. Introduce Giving to Current Students: Turning alumni into lifelong donors begins before those alumni ever graduate. Educating students on the meaning of advancement programs before they graduate can help you create a strong alumni-giving program. Students often never hear—but need to hear—that your institution spends more on education than it receives in tuition, and that programs aren’t possible without support from a community of generous funders. 
  2. Support Students After Graduation: The next step in your alumni engagement process is to provide graduates with ongoing support. The first five years after graduation is the most likely time you’ll lose track and stop communicating. Before that happens, you should reinforce a strong connection with young alumni. Since young alumni are in their early career, avoid heavy-handed solicitations. Instead, focus on offering your recent graduates support and encouragement while keeping them abreast of activities on campus. 
  3. Seek Active, Non-Financial Engagement First: Prior to asking for financial support, ask your recent graduates for their time or knowledge in a capacity that benefits your programs. The best gateway to young alumni giving is a strong volunteer program. 
  4. Solicit Gifts from Alumni: Once you’ve already engaged young alumni with post-graduation support communications as well as opportunities to lend their time and talent, you’re ready to ask for their support. Compelling your young alumni to make gifts early and regularly can help foster lifelong philanthropic relationships. 

For more information on this topic, please visit: Planned Giving


Giving Days

As giving days have exploded in popularity, those in the industry have wondered whether giving day donors will be reliable (and retainable) from one year to the next. The median retention rate for giving day donors continues to demonstrate that these donors are indeed reliable. The median retention rate stood at 67% for private institutions and 61% for public schools. Both rates are higher than their median overall donor retention rates of 64% and 56%.¹  

Executing a great giving day can propel your annual giving program forward. While donors might think that a giving day is just one day, the most effective annual giving shops treat a day of giving as a midpoint in a larger strategy to acquire and steward new donors. Overall, higher education institutions are investing more into their giving days and getting more in return. 

Award Management

Colleges and universities are being called upon to address the rising cost of tuition and reduce student loan debt. An increasing number of institutions are striving to offer free tuition to more of their students and others have raised the ceiling for need-based undergraduate financial aid even higher. 

These programs are possible because of generous donations to scholarship funds. Fundraising is essential to the growth of any scholarship program, and so is strengthening the scholarship process itself so that it is seamless, efficient, and supports donor stewardship. 

Here are some ideas for strengthening your award management and stewardship processes: 

  1. Align your Scholarship Filing Period: If they aren’t already aligned, consider synchronizing your scholarship priority application filing period with either your admission application priority filing period or the FAFSA priority filing period.  Students will have one less deadline to remember.
  2. Create One Location for all Scholarship Information: To provide clear direction for students, it’s important to consolidate all scholarship information in a single location. An easy way to do this is to provide a single scholarship link on your website that provides access to an online scholarship platform. 
  3. Make the Scholarship Application Easy to Find: You cannot rely on email alone to communicate scholarship information. It is important to communicate to students often and through a variety of mediums such as social media, direct mail, student communications like newspapers, handbooks and campus catalogs, as well as in-person scholarship workshops.
  4. Simplify the application process: Students should be able to search for scholarships and complete their application online 24 hours per day, 7 days per week using technology that populates the forms with known information for them.
  5. Use the scholarship process to aid recruitment efforts: In order to ensure that incoming freshman students can incorporate scholarships into their decision-making process, spend time communicating key processes and dates to incoming freshman and high school counselors in your service area.
  6. Create impactful stewardship practices and enhance visibility throughout the process: Use post-acceptance information to build student profiles, and then merge fund and student data to build a donor report. Doing that will help you send regular, informative communications to keep donors engaged. Even beyond that, you can create a donor portal where donors can regularly track their fund status and see previously awarded student information. All of this will help you build relationships with donors by sharing in-depth fund and student information while driving loyal, life-long support.